Reference Entry

Waters, Ethel (1896 - 1977), Stage / Screen Actor, Blues Musician / Singer

Elizabeth Amelia Hadley

in Black Women in America, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195156775
Waters, Ethel (1896 - 1977), Stage / Screen Actor, Blues Musician / Singer

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Ethel Waters achieved many “firsts” during the course of her seven-decade career, establishing herself as a celebrated artist on vaudeville and Broadway, nightclubs, radio, recordings, film, and television. As a vocalist, she influenced an entire generation of singers, many of whom initially imitated her vocal style to enhance their entries into show business. The Waters influence could be heard, for example, in the recordings of the young voices of Ivie Anderson, Mildred Bailey, and even Ella Fitzgerald. Waters sang blues, jazz, show tunes, and standards. She popularized “St. Louis Blues,” “Dinah,” “Am I Blue?,” “Stormy Weather, “ “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “There'll Be Some Changes Made,” and “Suppertime” for mainstream America. As an actor, she shone in adaptations of classic American literature by DuBose Heyward, Carson McCullers, and William Faulkner, shattering the outlines of the Mammy stereotype with the sheer power and intelligence of her remarkable performances. And, although she was apolitical, her legacy opened doors for those who followed.Ethel Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was conceived when her thirteen-year-old mother Louise Tar Anderson was raped by John Wesley Waters. Louise Anderson was understandably traumatized by this experience, and so Ethel's grandmother, Sally Anderson, a housemaid, raised the baby along with her own children. Waters indicated in her autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, that she lived in the “red-light” district where “I came to know well the street whores, the ladies in their sporting houses, the pickpockets, shoplifters and other thieves who lived all around us.” As a child, Waters worked at assorted jobs, including odd jobs at local brothels, cleaning hotel rooms, and washing dishes. Acutely aware of the erratic nature of show business, Waters made certain she would have access to such menial jobs throughout her professional career. One of Waters's enduring aspirations, even after success, was to become a lady's maid and companion to a wealthy woman with whom she would travel the world.At thirteen, Waters married Merritt “Buddy” Pemsley, and left him within a year. She engaged in one more short-lived marriage to Clyde Edward “Eddie” Matthews when she was at the pinnacle of her career. Although Waters had no biological children, she adopted a goddaughter, Algretta Holmes, and financially cared for some twenty disadvantaged young girls., photographed in 1946. She was a celebrated artist in vaudeville, on Broadway, in nightclubs, in films, and on recordings, radio, and television. As a vocalist, she influenced an entire generation of singers. Library of CongressIn 1911, when Waters was fifteen, she began her career as a singer in a Philadelphia nightclub, billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean.” Afterward, she toured as the third member of the Hill Sisters and became the first woman to sing the W. C. Handy classic “St. Louis Blues.” Her initial performance of this song at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1913 garnered a shower of money on stage and fervent applause. Waters established herself as a vocalist and frequently performed the “shimmy,” which became her signature dance.The Black Swan label, founded in 1921 by W. C. Handy, “father of the blues,” and his partner Harry Pace, recorded Waters the same year singing “I'm Wild about Moonshine” and “It's Getting So You Can't Trust Nobody.” She stayed with this label until 1924 and then signed with Columbia Records in 1925 after her successful debut of “Dinah” at the renowned Plantation Club on Broadway in New York City. She recorded her exemplary works at Columbia for more than a decade. These records featured great musicians, black and white, among them Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang.Encouraged by the producer Earl Dancer, Waters began performing with both black and white musicians early in her career. She stated in His Eye Is on the Sparrow, “Lou Henly was the first one to get me to sing different types of songs. Earl Dancer pushed me into the white time.” Before Waters, virtually all black singers performed on the black vaudeville circuit. Waters's remarkable abilities helped to break the performance color line, putting her on the leading white stages in the country. Between about 1925 and 1928, Waters played vaudeville shows in both black and white theaters. In New York City, she appeared at the Lafayette, Lincoln, Franklin, Riverside, and Fordham theaters; the Broadway Theater; Keith-Albee Palace Theater; and Proctor's 86th Street Theater. She also played the Albee Theater in Brooklyn, the Keith Theater in Syracuse, Shea's Theater in Buffalo, and Proctor's Theater in Newark, New Jersey. West of New York City, she played the Dunbar Theater in Philadelphia and, in Ohio, the Keith Theater in Youngstown, the Keith 104th Street Theater in Cleveland, and the Keith Theater in Dayton. She also performed in Toronto, Canada, at Shea's Theater. During the same years, Waters performed at clubs, among them the Cafe de Paris in Chicago and the Everglades and Sam Selvin's Plantation Club in New York, where in 1925 she replaced Florence Mills in Plantation Revue.Waters arrived on Broadway in 1927, appearing in Dancer and Heyward's all-black revue, Africana (1927), for which she received an excellent notice in Variety and about which Carl Van Vechten stated, “Her incandescent presence lifted it out of the run-of-the-mill rut.” She followed that performance with work in several black revues, beginning with Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928. In the meantime, Waters made her film debut singing “Am I Blue?” in On with the Show and then returned to Broadway in Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930. The next year, she appeared in Rhapsody in Black at the Belasco Theater in Washington, DC, the Paramount and Sam Harris theaters in New York City, and the Majestic and New Brighton Theaters in Brooklyn. Waters performed in the same show at the Chicago Theater in 1931. She played the Harlem Opera House in New York and the Apollo Theater in Chicago in 1932.Waters was clearly popular and much in demand, but an even greater celebrity was just around the corner. Songwriter Irving Berlin heard her rendition of “Stormy Weather” at Harlem's Cotton Club and offered her a role in As Thousands Cheer (1933), with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick. Waters thereby became the first black performer to appear in an all-white cast on Broadway. The show featured Waters singing “Suppertime,” the lament of a woman who is preparing dinner for her family on the day that her husband has been lynched, the first such song to reach a mainstream audience. This was one of four songs Berlin wrote for her to sing in the show.As Thousands Cheer was the catalyst that propelled Ethel Waters to stardom. She would eventually become one of the highest-paid performers on Broadway. When the show went south, she became the first black performer to costar with whites on the southern stage. The success of the show prompted the Amoco Gas Company to hire Waters as the vocalist for its weekly Sunday night radio broadcast of Jack Denny's orchestra. This made her the first African American to star on a nationwide commercial radio program. She remained on the show with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra until 1934.Waters's success as a vocalist and recording artist continued after she left the radio show. She received accolades for her flawless diction and her vocal range from contralto to high clear soprano, extending more than two octaves, as well as for her vocal interpretations. She rendered “Darkies Never Cry” with pathos, the bawdy blues lyrics of “You Can't Do What My Last Man Did” and “Shake That Thing” with sly double entendre, and the Hebrew lyrics of “Eili Eili” with great poignancy. Indeed, the black filmmaker Gene Davis stated that Waters “was the first black singer Jewish songwriters of the day were confident of in terms of sophisticated material.” She introduced fifty songs that became hits, an achievement for which she received the Silver Loving Cup from the Popular Song Association in 1933.Waters appeared in two film shorts: Rufus Jones for President (1933), featuring six-year-old Sammy Davis Jr., in which she sang her 1929 hit “Am I Blue”; and Bubblin' Over (1934), only twenty minutes in length, but worth the experience of witnessing Waters singing “Darkies Never Cry.” Gift of Gab (1934) and Hot 'n' Bothered (1934) followed. She returned to the stage in 1935, costarring with Beatrice Lillie on Broadway at the Winter Garden and the Majestic theaters and then on tour, in the hit musical At Home Abroad, which was the costume and set designer Vincente Minnelli's directing debut. Again, Waters received critical acclaim, particularly from the highly influential critic Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times.Still, there were not many Broadway musicals written for black women, so Waters had to fall back on performing as a singer. She joined the trumpeter Eddie Mallory's band as a vocalist and toured the U.S. vaudeville circuit from 1935 to 1937, while waiting for her theatrical star to ascend again. She sang in disparate venues. Some were dives such as Edmond's in New York, and others were ballroom theaters like the Savoy Ballroom and Palace Theatre. She appeared with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in The Cotton Club Express Revue at the Cotton Club in 1937. Over the years, Waters recorded on several labels, including Brunswick (1932) with the Duke Ellington Orchestra; Liberty (1935) with the Russell Wooding Orchestra; Bluebird (1938–1939); Decca (1938); Mercury (1947); Victor (1947); and Evergreen (1957).Disenchanted with the dearth of theatrical vehicles, and challenged by a public who regarded her as exclusively a musical performer, Waters took a great risk. She created the dramatic role of Hagar in Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's Mamba's Daughters, which opened at the Empire Theatre on 3 January 1939. Her opening night performance garnered seventeen curtain calls. The play, adapted from Heyward's 1929 novel of the same title, made her the first black actress to star on Broadway in a dramatic play. The character, who bore striking similarities to Waters's mother, enabled Waters to explore and express obscured emotional depths. Her performance brought nearly universal rave reviews. The one discordant critic, the same Brooks Atkinson who praised Waters four years earlier, was induced to recant his criticism after an advertisement was published in the New York Times collectively paid for by the theater notables Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Gish, Burgess Meredith, Judith Anderson, Norman Bel Geddes, Cass Canfield, John Emery, Oscar Hammerstein, Paul Kellogg, Edwin Knopf, Ben H. Lehman, Fania Marinoff, Aline MacMahon, Stanley Reinhardt, and Carl Van Vechten, advising him to take a second look at the performance. The drama critic Alexander Woolcott wrote of this performance, “Ethel Waters is an actress of such scope and stature as could use a ‘Medea.’ In the meantime we must be thankful to ‘Mamba’s Daughters' for the chance it gives us to see such a performance as no playgoer can ever forget.” Van Vechten wrote, “When I think of ‘great’ performances I think of Ellen Terry as Portia, Rejane in La Robe Rouge, Mary Garden as Mélisande, Chaliapin as Boris, Sarah Bernhardt in La Dame aux Camelias…and now Ethel Waters as Hagar!”One day during the run of Mamba's Daughters, Ethel Waters learned that her mother was in need of medical attention and, although legally sane, was about to be confined to a mental institution because appropriate Pennsylvania facilities were closed to black patients. Waters provided home care for her mother and later lamented the cruel irony of the situation. She was receiving accolades from thousands of sympathetic spectators for her vivid portrayal of an oppressed black character, which she based on her mother, while her mother, a real human being, was callously refused medical care less than one hundred miles away because she was black.Such an overwhelming success would have led to dozens of job offers in dramatic roles for a white actress, but for Waters it was back to musicals. She was cast as the faithful and long-suffering wife in the musical stage production of Cabin in the Sky (1940), playing opposite Dooley Wilson. Her rival in love was the magnificent Katherine Dunham. The play ran for a year and a half. After starring in a variety revue titled Laugh Time, she found herself without an offer of work in New York City. She was at this time simultaneously serving as a member of the executive council of Actors Equity Association and as vice president of the Negro Actors Guild of America. She moved to Los Angeles, where she appeared as a maid in the film Cairo (1942), with Jeannette McDonald and Robert Young. She went on to do Tales of Manhattan (1942) with Paul Robeson and Stage Door Canteen (1943), in which she sang “Quicksand,” accompanied by Count Basie at the piano. She reprised her stage role as the pious Petunia in the film adaptation of Cabin in the Sky (1943), in which she worked with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and the beautiful young Lena Horne and jitterbugged with John “Bubbles” Sublett. But there simply was not enough stage and screen work to keep her employed. Waters received scant consideration as an actress and even discovered, on her return to New York, that she was no longer in such great demand as a club singer. By the year 1948, she was hardly working at all.Waters's career took an auspicious turn when she played the role of the grandmother in the film Pinky (1949), for which she received an Academy Award nomination. She also received an award from the Negro Actors Guild of America for dramatic achievement. Subsequently, she gave a memorable performance as the one-eyed Berenice Sadie Brown, the benevolent servant and surrogate mother to the tomboy Frankie Addams, played by Julie Harris, in Carson McCullers's stage play The Member of the Wedding. The play opened in 1950 at the Empire Theater and netted Waters the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best actress, after which she toured nationally with the production into 1953. Waters specified during preproduction conferences that she would undertake the role only if McCullers revised the maid's characterization. McCullers agreed that Waters could bring “God” and “hopefulness” to the character, traits absent from both the novel and the play. The Poet Laureate Langston Hughes said of her performance:She gave an additional human dimension to the conventional ‘Mammy’ of old—one of both dignity and gentleness—that endeared her to theatregoers without the use on stage of the handkerchief-head dialect and broad humor of former days. In her portrayals of illiterate Negro mothers of the South, Ethel Waters was a mistress of the “laughter through tears” technique which she brought to perfection in her highly hailed performance of Berenice in Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding.(Hughes, p. 198)The stage version of Member surpassed the popularity of the 1946 novel and received the New York Drama Critics Award for Best American Play for the 1949–1950 season.Ethel Waters was a familiar figure in the early years of television. As early as 1939, she had her own television special. When television became widespread in the early 1950s, she was a regular. She starred in the series Beulah (ABC, 1950–1951), making her the first black performer to star in a television situation comedy. She also made many guest appearances on the dramatic anthologies that were so popular at the time, such as American Inventory (NBC, 1953); Favorite Playhouse (“Speaking to Hannah,” CBS, 1955); Climax (“The Dance,” CBS, 1955); General Electric Theatre (“Winner by Decision,” with Harry Belafonte, CBS, 1955); Playwrights 56 (“The Sound and the Fury,” NBC, 1955); and Matinee Theatre (1957). She appeared on variety shows such as Tex and Jinx Close Up Show and Steve Allen's Tonight Show. The financially stressed Waters regularly appeared on Break the $250,000 Bank, a game show.Waters was profoundly religious, a Roman Catholic by affiliation. Her continued allegiance to Catholicism is often attributed to the humane treatment she received at a Catholic school in Philadelphia. She contributed to Catholic charities for the duration of her career, and religion seems to have sustained her through both triumphs and tribulations. Toward the end of the 1950s, Waters made a choice that changed the rest of her life. She joined the Billy Graham Crusade, traveling around the country with the evangelist's troupe and singing for its audiences. For twenty years, while she also performed in secular venues, her focus was the Crusade. In 1956, she made a film for Billy Graham entitled The Heart Is a Rebel, in which she played a nurse. Three years later, she made another major film in Hollywood, The Sound and the Fury. Again she was cast in a variation of the Mammy role, and again she transcended it.Waters also continued to do television. She was the first black woman to be Emmy-nominated for a dramatic guest appearance, in 1962 for the Route 66 episode “Goodnight Sweet Blues,” one of the few times she did not portray a mammy or long-suffering mother. She played a dying blues singer who yearns to be reunited with her old band. She next appeared in Great Adventures, with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (“Go Down Moses,” CBS, 1963, released as the film Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad). She also appeared on other dramatic series, such as Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law (“Run, Carol, Run,” 1972) and Daniel Boone (“Mamma Cooper,” 1970). She also made many television appearances with the Billy Graham Crusade between 1965 and 1976.Ethel Waters was in no sense a political radical or an agitator for racial equality in the theatrical profession, though in her personal dealings she was a tough negotiator and one who would brook no assaults on her dignity. She once stated, “I'm not concerned with civil rights. I'm only concerned with God-given rights, and they are available to everyone!” Having come under fire from some black political groups who accused her of promulgating stereotypes, she was critical of black political groups who questioned the accuracy of the portrayal of blacks on the American stage and screen. She maintained that there were thieves, murderers, and wife-beaters among her people as well as geniuses and saints and that it was therefore misguided to protest the depiction of the former. If the theatrical roles she created reflected the stereotyped perceptions more than the complex realities of American life for blacks, she nevertheless brought an unquestioned sincerity and talent to her work.Waters died at home from cancer and kidney failure and was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California. A 1985 concert at Avery Fisher Hall, hosted by the veteran musician Bobby Short, featured performers from around the country paying homage to the early stage and screen career of Ethel Waters in song, with her films rolling as backdrop.See also Autobiography; Blues; Musical Theater; and Theater.

Reference Entry.  3318 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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